Dear Jackson, read carefully, and think slowly

TREmeritus earlier published a letter by Mr Jackson Wee, “Rebutting Tan Wah Piow: I’ve always been a free S’porean“, in response to a letter posted by Mr Tan Wah Piow on The Online Citizen, “Lee Kuan Yew’s death will set the people free“. Mr Tan has written in response to clarify. We have also shared his letter with TREmeritus.

Tan Wah Piow 2015Dear Jackson,

Thank you for taking the trouble to read my article “Lee Kuan Yew’s death will set the people free”.
I am sorry that in your grief over the passing of your hero, you misread and misunderstood what I wrote when you alleged that I labelled fellow Singaporeans as mindless minions. Hence the title of your article “I am not a minion, I am a free Singaporean.”

In the first paragraph of my article, I wrote:

“In life, Lee KuanYew’s sole concern was to be feared by his countrymen. He was so spectacularly successful in this pursuit that by the time of his death, he was left with no cohorts: only minions.”

I hope you are not offended when I say you are certainly not the class of Singaporeans I had in mind when I made references to cohorts and minions because the minions are members of a privilege elite.

The clue can be found in this quotation from Devan Nair, the former President of Singapore.

“Today, Lee no longer deals with his equals, but with his chosen appointees, who did not earn power the hard way, but had it conferred on them. They are highly qualified men, no doubt, but nobody expects them to possess the gumption to talk back to the increasingly self-righteous know-all that Lee has become. Further, the bread of those who conform is handsomely buttered. Keep your head down and you could enjoy one of the highest living standards in Asia. Raise it and you could lose a job, a home, and be harassed by the Internal Security Department or the Inbland Revenue Department, or by both, as happened to Francis Seow.” [1994, Foreword in Francis Seow’s To Catch a Tartar.]

You can also learn something about this species from the remarks of Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, the top Civil Servant who retired in 1999:

“In the early days, Lim Kim San and Goh Keng Swee worked night and day, and they were truly dedicated. I don’t know whether Lee Kuan Yew will agree but it started going downhill when we started to raise ministers’ salaries, not even pegging them to the national salary but aligning them with the top 10.When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollar, every minister — no matter how much he wants to turn up and tell Hsien Loong off or whatever — will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary. Even if he wants to do it, his wife will stop him.”

I must, however, hasten to add that soon after this retired civil servant remarks were widely publicised in the social media, the Straits Times carried a front page retraction from Ngiam, who told the press that those very remarks he made were ‘illogical’ and unfair.

There you are Jackson, in Singapore, one does get free front-page publicity for recanting and expressing regrets for saying the wrong things.

I am surprised that you took exception to my article’s reference to Lee Kuan Yew’s obsession of wanting his countrymen to be fearful of him. “I reject your assertion that Mr Lee was someone who would rather be feared than loved”, you wrote.

But Jackson, these were the exact words of the man:

“Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”

You were not only factually wrong on the two above mentioned two points, you had unfairly resorted to personal attacks on me without any knowledge about the circumstances which led to my exile. This is not the space for me to correct your misconceptions, but if you are committed to the truth, do find the opportunity to visit the National Library reference section, and ask for copies of my books “The Frame-Up”, “Smokescreen & Mirrors” and an account of my exile in “Escape from the Lion’s Paw”.

You also made a generic attack on those who went into exile when you wrote:

“I think it is people like you who feared him and hence, fled to the cosy confines of a western country. Do not imbue your own fear or cowardice to me.”

Jackson, while I have no doubt about your patriotism, but to love one’s country blindly by ignoring the facts will ultimately cause more harm than good to the nation and the people because you will end up being an obstacle to change and progress. And one fact of life in Singapore is “fear”, a reality you vehemently deny.

I had earlier quoted a paragraph from the Devan Nair’s Foreword to Francis Seow’s book. Devan Nair died in exile, and Francis Seow is still in exile in the United States. Were they cowards, leaving Singapore for the “cosy confines of a western country”?

You ought to reflect on these words of Devan Nair who was one of the closest cohorts of Lee Kuan Yew since the 1950s:

“And writing this foreword, I am cruelly aware that I am, in effect, finally and irretrievably burning my boats with my country and a people whom I love and served over the greater part of a lifetime. But what would you? Exile, pensionless to boot, at least ensures the survival of the integrity of the person.”

Even writing from a distance of over 10,000 miles, Devan Nair, an ex-President of the Republic, had to ponder over the consequences of writing a foreword for the book of a former Solicitor General of Singapore. You are either a very bold man to say that you have no fear, or you are a very foolish one.

Jackson, I can fully understand if many of the facts stated in this reply are new to you, but one cannot be blamed for not knowing what you do not know. But when you signed off your letter with the remark “Do not lord over us Singaporeans and proclaim us free”, you were recklessly making a comment based on your misreading of what I had written. The central theme in my article is that “The death of Lee Kuan Yew will certainly unlock the inhibitions and liberate the people from fear.”

This freedom from fear and the need to speak out against injustice is a subject close to my heart for the past four decades. When I was released from prison in 1975, the subject of my talk to the students at the University of Singapore Students Union was the need to Speak out against the Culture of Silence. This unfortunate is still relevant today despite the proliferation of social media.

His death, I hope, will exorcise that fear which stifled our otherwise natural inclination to free expression. It is thus my hope that with his death, more Singaporeans will speak out without having the fear of burning one’s bridge. That is my subjective aspiration, but I am also mindful of the objective reality that those in power may be too insecure to be able to handle such challenges.

Lastly, I am sorry that several netizens who read your open letter described your response as ‘daft’. I hope you are pleased to know that I don’t share that view. You are normal, and you rushed to condemn my article based on the information and bias which were at the forefront of your mind. This “fast thinking” is a mental process studied by the nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman , author of the international best seller “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

Your ‘fast thinking’ is automatic, effortless, and involuntary, relying on information and intuitive bias embedded in your brain which are quickly retrievable. Its as easy as saying 2 X 2 = 4. Or in everyday life, one would instinctively pick up a Colgate toothpaste instead of another unknown brand in a supermarket because since time unmemorable, the population has been bombarded with Colgate’s advertisements. Toothpaste is Colgate, and Colgate is Toothpaste. In the same way, in some societies, when faced with natural calamities, people went on their knees to seek God’s help. It is precisely because of this “fast thinking” process that, as Daniel Kahneman observed, “it is no accident that authoritarian regimes exert substantial pressure on independent media”. I hope you get the drift of my point.

The alternative to “fast thinking” is “slow thinking”, which is an effortful, deliberate process requiring one to pause and assemble one’s thoughts, such as finding the answer to 17 X 29.

May I therefore invite you to read this reply carefully; research, explore and think slowly before jumping to any rash conclusions.

Tan Wah Piow